I first saw The Legend of Hell House as boy on a tape recorded off of TV. Sounds bad and yet the film captivated me with its gothic setting and grandiose cinematography by Alan Hume (Return of the Jedi, A View to a Kill). But viewing the film today, I wonder if I convinced myself of these things to stay up late. So, let’s turn up the tracking and look for answers with The Legend of Hell House.
To start, the film opens with text over black that reads:
“Although the story of this film is fictitious the events depicted involving psychic phenomena are not only very much within the bounds of possibility, but could be true.”
– Tom Corbett
Clairvoyant and Psychic Consultant to European Royalty
“Within the bounds of possibility” and “could be true” If you want to scare people you have to own it. Say “YES!” It’s all true… ALL OF IT! Because if a film uses phrases like “could be” no one will believe it. Though I do love that the message is from the “Clairvoyant and Psychic Consultant to European Royalty.” Does this mean Queen Elizabeth has a paranormal expert by her side at all times? That sounds like a much better film.
The Legend of Hell House has barely begun when the plot is put into motion. A crazy old rich man (Roland Culver) hires physicist Lionel Barrett (Clive Revill) to investigate the Belasco House, aka, “the Mount Everest of haunted houses” to prove the existence of ghosts. Thus, Barrett assembles a team which includes his wife Ann (Gayle Hunnicutt), psychic Florence Tanner (Pamela Franklin), described as “practically a child,” and psychic Benjamin Fischer (Roddy McDowall), the only survivor of a previous expedition to Hell House twenty years prior.
Immediately, I can tell this film is dated in its treatment of women. No critique is given towards the male members of the team. Roddy McDowall is completely unhinged but there’s rarely any mention of it. Yet all the women are weak or “practically a child.” What a stupid backward country. I hear they put beans on their toast as well. Sadly, the sexism problem doesn’t end here either.
The group travels to Hell House, a vast gothic mansion with no shortage of fog. The film’s establishing shots are stunning. Though inside Hell House the build up to paranormal activity is slow. The suspense starts in typical fashion, characters receive bad vibes and hear strange noises. Really, it’s more or less the same plot and approach as Robert Wise’s 1963 classic The Haunting. Except where The Haunting focuses on excellent sound design and atmosphere, The Legend of Hell House is a lame soap opera with few flourishes.
Later, we hear snippets of the house’s deceased owner, Emeric Belasco. According to Roddy McDowall, Belasco dabbled with “drug addiction, alcoholism, murder mutilation, vampirism, bestiality, and more.” I have to say, that sounds like a better movie. Yet even with these juicy details, the film is vague. What did Belasco actually do? And how did the previous investigators die? When Barrett asks Roddy McDowall, he replies “What’s to tell? The House tried to kill me. It almost succeeded.” Huh? “What’s to tell?” EVERYTHING IS TO TELL!
After a few days, Barrett begins work on a machine to monitor supernatural activity. Meanwhile, Ann and Florence are possessed by spirits and become sex-crazed monsters. Again, keep in mind this only happens to the female characters because they are practically children. Wouldn’t you rather see a sex-crazed Roddy McDowall strip off his clothes and talk like a demon? Also, how is this scary? This film never makes my skin crawl. Cringe maybe, not crawl.
Throughout the film, we never see much in the way of supernatural occurrences. Barrett dies from psychic activity and a crucifix falls and kills Florence, neither are memorable. Roddy McDowall and Ann are then left as the sole survivors. The two of them stumble across a hidden lead room where Belasco’s body is still pristinely preserved. Fun Fact: the body is played by Michael Gough aka Alfred from the 90s Batman movies. Roddy McDowall discovers this room contains Belasco’s electromagnetic energy which is why Belasco’s spirit has been trapped. I like the scientific explanation for the haunting, but it’s too little too late. Roddy McDowall opens the door, turns on the machine and hopes the spirits of Barrett and Florence can guide Belasco to the afterlife. The End.
Overall, the film is disappointing The cinematography is great. The first twenty minutes are passable. Roddy McDowall is acceptable. But everything else sucks. Most of all, I could not care less about the film’s stock characters. I think they might be better suited for dinner theater.
What puzzles me about all of this is Richard Matheson wrote this. I love Richard Matheson. I Am Legend? Duel? The Twilight Zone? The man is a master of horror. Yet this feels so pedestrian. This could never be an episode of The Twilight Zone. This is more like a campy Dark Shadows episode. Then again, maybe the psychological deterioration plays better in Matheson’s book. All I know is past me was a liar. There is no way a ten-year-old could like this film. At least that “could be true.”
I like dis cat, though.